Scott Bassis 

Manuela Gets Cancelled

 

   When the lockdown began in March and Manuela shifted to teaching online, she found little had changed. As Trinity High School’s calculus teacher, most of her students were seniors. Since a calculus credit wasn’t required to graduate, only overachievers took the course. Attendance was still strong. The scores on the final exam were comparable to last year’s, before the coronavirus plunged the world into crisis.
   Stability was important to her. It was one of the things that drew her to math. Mathematical principles never changed. Formulas could be applied to any scenario. Of course, times now were anything but consistent. But from March until May, at least her calculus classes provided a sense of normality.
   She had hoped that the company of Jasmine, her sixteen-year-old daughter, would be a source of comfort. As the lockdown dragged on, however, their relationship grew increasingly strained.
   One morning in June, when Manuela was vacuuming the apartment, she entered Jasmine’s room to find her bent over a piece of construction paper. At first, Manuela felt proud that Jasmine chose to do something artistic with her free time. As she glanced down over her shoulder, her curious smile turned into a scowl. She read the words, “Deport Straight, White Men!” spelled out in red letters against a black background.
   As Jasmine began to explain that she was making a protest sign for her boyfriend, Manuela swiftly picked it up and tore it in half. She reminded Jasmine that Jasmine’s stepfather, Manuela’s husband, Tim, was a straight, white man. Jasmine accused her of being “complicit in perpetuating social injustice,” and railed again about being forbidden from protesting, using her old standby argument: her father, Pablo, would let her do it.
   Manuela certainly understood systemic racism. She grew up in Jersey City public housing. She continued to face discrimination in their Manhattan, Gramercy Park condo. She lost track of how many times a neighbor mistook her for a maid, asking which agency she worked for, or if she did laundry.
   Even so, she reminded Jasmine that Tim, an ER doctor, was risking his life every day, working twelve-hour shifts. She told her, imagine how hurt he would be if, after staggering home at night, hungry and exhausted, he happened upon a sign urging his deportation. Jasmine replied that more minorities should have the chance to be doctors. Manuela agreed, so didn’t know how to respond.
   For the most part, Jasmine confined herself to her room, emerging sulkily every so often, usually with a new criticism of her mother. Manuela spent more time with Aidan, her and Tim’s five-year-old son. Unfortunately, Aidan spent most of his time watching computer-animated TV shows, all of which seemed to involve superpowered people, monsters, or animals.
   When Dorothy Bennett’s new book, Droid X, arrived from Amazon, she ripped open the box desperately, having watched one too many battles between a flying cow and a psychic chicken. The book brought back memories of her friend Christine. They hadn’t spoken since their falling out junior year at NYU. She had never worked up the nerve to contact her, but she still missed her dearly.


***


   Manuela and Christine first bonded over Dorothy Bennett’s Julie 17 series, four science fiction novels chronicling the adventures of the titular character, a human created in an alien lab using DNA harvested from a long desolate Earth. Manuela had been a fan of the books. Christine had only seen the films.
   “Shit, don’t tell me what happens,” Christine said. Manuela sat on her bed, reading Julie 17: Planet Ablaze, the final entry in the series. The films were only up to the third book, which ended on a cliffhanger, with Julie being impaled by the barbed tentacle of her love interest, Tazmac.
   “Okay,” Manuela said, not looking up. She was painfully shy. Despite being roommates, it was a month into her and Christine’s freshman year and they had only had a handful of conversations.
   “Oh, but I really need to know. I can’t wait a year until the next one comes out. I have, like, zero self-discipline,” Christine said. Manuela smirked. She had noticed. Christine never started her assignments before nine o’clock at night. Instead, she spent hours complaining about all she had to do, while watching DVDs or surfing the internet.
   “Okay, Tazmac…” Manuela began.
   “Shut up! I said don’t tell me. I mean, I said tell me, but don’t listen to me,” Christine snapped. Manuela giggled. Seeing Manuela’s amusement, Christine smiled.
   Christine had an attractive, dimpled smile. She was Korean. With her crew cut, square jaw and high cheekbones, she struck Manuela as “handsome,” rather than “pretty.” Manuela had guessed right away that Christine was a lesbian. Christine had confirmed it before orientation was over, when Manuela woke up to their RA, Erin, snoring in Christine’s bed. Seeing Manuela awake, Christine mouthed a sheepish, “Sorry.”
   “So, I know she definitely doesn’t die, because, duh, she’s the main character…” Christine paused, perceiving something in    Manuela’s face. Manuela realized she must have unintentionally glanced down. “She does die,” Christine gasped. “Tazmac brings her back as a clone with the DNA in her blood.”
   Manuela frowned. Christine had guessed it correctly.
   “Aw, don’t feel bad. I’m just crazy,” Christine shrugged. Manuela smiled politely and returned to her book.
   “But is she the same ‘Julie 17,’ with the same memories and stuff? Or, is she like ‘Julie 18?’” Christine asked. Manuela’s eyes, wide with exasperation, caused Christine to laugh, which made Manuela laugh.
   “I’ll leave you alone.” Christine returned to her PC and brought up a blank Word document. All Manuela usually wanted was to be left alone. Nevertheless, she found herself enjoying Christine’s company.
   “I never liked Tazmac for her,” Manuela noted, offhandedly.
   “Oh yeah, he’s a total dick.” Christine swiveled her chair around, grateful to be distracted from her coursework.
   They proceeded to exchange theories about Julie 17’s fate. When Manuela finished the book a few days later, Christine begged her not to spoil it, then grabbed it herself and read the last three pages. Afterwards, they were both misty-eyed because the ending was so perfect.


***


   Droid X was set in an alternate dimension, rather than a distant future. The protagonist, X-T99, was a plucky android, instead of a rebellious genetically engineered human. Still, it read like a carbon copy of the Julie 17 series.
   “What are you doing?” Jasmine shrieked as Manuela read on the couch. Nonplussed, Manuela shut her book and glanced up.
   “Reading,” Manuela answered.
   “But why are you reading her? She’s a bigot,” Jasmine spat with disgust.
   “Dorothy Bennett?” Manuela said, in disbelief. When Bennett wrote the Julie 17 series, she was in her forties. By now, she was an old woman. In her author’s photo, she appeared kindly and frail, with horn-rimmed glasses and a nest of wiry gray hair. Manuela couldn’t imagine her saying anything malicious.
   “That old bitch has been trending for months. Do you even look at Facebook?” Jasmine asked. Manuela wondered if it was still acceptable to use the term “bitch.” Jasmine had recently chided her for saying it in reference to Mrs. Fletcher, their downstairs neighbor, who called the super each time Aidan dropped a toy. She supposed it was determined on a case by case basis.
   “Not often,” Manuela admitted. “What did she do? Say something offensive on Twitter?” she asked, dismissively. She felt lucky she never signed up for Twitter. Last year, Mr. Davis, Trinity High School’s gym teacher, was fired after his misogynistic tweets came to light.
   “Worse. During a livestream interview, she said she wouldn’t let a Julie 17 reboot be made if it didn’t star a white, cisgender woman. ‘If you make Julie 17 a different race, or LGBTQIA, etcetera, call her something else.’” Jasmine used a shrill, nagging voice to paraphrase Bennett’s words.
   “That’s ridiculous. I don’t see why she has to be white. And why does she have to be straight? Everyone she sleeps with is an alien. She’s the only human left in the universe,” Manuela grimaced, disappointed that Bennett proved to be so narrow-minded.
   “And she won’t back down. She even posted a twenty-page essay about how she’s being ‘bullied by far left wokesters,’” Jasmine continued. Manuela had to stop herself from snickering at the term “wokester,” which she knew wouldn’t go over well with Jasmine.
   “What’s wrong with encouraging diversity? We need more minority role models,” Manuela asserted.
   “Exactly,” Jasmine said. Manuela smiled, grateful that she and Jasmine could agree on something. She opened her book to the middle and skimmed through the pages, trying to remember where she left off.
   “Mom!” Jasmine yelled.
   “What?” Manuela said, looking up.
   “Don’t tell me you’re going to finish reading that. It’s bad enough you bought it.” Jasmine’s voice cracked with emotion. She was genuinely upset.
   Manuela had an analytical mind. She could easily set her personal feelings aside, whether to solve a math problem, or when being entertained. She could watch a comedy starring an actor accused of despicable things, and still laugh from start to finish. But she didn’t know how to explain that to Jasmine without sounding amoral.
   “Fine,” Manuela said. She set the book down on the table. It was second rate, anyway. Jasmine grinned.
   “Do you think I can have it? Ethan makes videos on Instagram where he discusses problematic aspects of our culture. He ends it by lighting something offensive on fire,” Jasmine asked, her eyes wide with enthusiasm.
   “Sure,” Manuela said, defeatedly. Jasmine seemed so eager to provide her boyfriend fresh bonfire material that she couldn’t possibly disappoint her.
   “Thanks, Mom.” Snatching the book, Jasmine hurried off to her room.
   Manuela got up and walked to her bedroom. She scanned the bookcase for something to read. Most of the shelf space was devoted to Tim’s medical books. Though she used to be an avid reader, she largely stopped after having Jasmine. Indeed, the few novels she found were ones she had read long ago. Uninterested in expanding her knowledge of human pathology, she returned to the couch empty-handed.
   She was soon back to watching the antics of the “Barnyard Super-Buddies.” The show aired in large blocks during the afternoon. She realized, to her dismay, that she was actually becoming immersed in the storylines.
   After a while, Aidan got up from the carpet and plopped down next to her. As she put her arm around him, she thought, “At least you don’t judge me…Not yet, anyway.”


***


   A few days later, Manuela made her weekly trip to Gramercy Market. The prices were absurdly high. When she first met Tim seven years ago, the doctor who treated Jasmine’s fractured wrist from a playground fall, she considered salad bar food a luxury. Now she only ate organic, and the Gristedes on the corner would never do, even in an emergency.
   As had become the norm, there was a long line of masked customers waiting to be let in. Manuela joined the back of the line. After a few minutes, she heard a chorus of voices chanting. She turned to a crowd of dozens heading down Broadway. It took her a moment to discern their words: “Justice! Equality! Change!”
   “Where are the police? You can’t march in the middle of the street like that without a permit,” the old woman in front of Manuela grumbled. With her lip curled in disgust, she watched them continue downtown. “They must be going to Washington Square Park. There are rallies there every day,” she croaked.
   Manuela had once been to a rally in Washington Square Park. Christine had dragged her. It ended up being one of the most beautiful nights of her life.
   After the protesters passed, Manuela spotted a policeman tailing them, holding his transceiver to his mouth. She suddenly felt afraid for the protesters, who reminded her of Jasmine and her friends. It was easy to imagine a confrontation, and people getting hurt.
   The old woman grinned, heartened by the sight of the officer.
   “Spray them with rubber bullets, that’s what I say,” she declared. She threw Manuela a look of camaraderie. Despite Manuela’s brown skin, she clearly assumed Manuela agreed. Manuela wondered if it was her age, her expensive clothes, or the fact that she was shopping at this overpriced establishment. Regardless, she was appalled that this woman thought she was anything like her.
   “Fuck off, Karen,” Manuela spouted, using a term she had picked up from Jasmine.
   “Who do you think you are?” the old woman gasped.
   Manuela’s mind went back to that night with Christine. She was eighteen years old, filled with hope, experiencing a powerful moment of solidarity. Longing to feel that way again, she abandoned her place in line and headed down Broadway.


***


   “Come on, you have to go. It’s for women’s rights,” Christine pled. It was during the spring of their freshman year. By then, Christine was her best friend. In fact, she was her only friend. Her college social life was almost nonexistent.
   Though Manuela was naturally pretty, with large eyes, sharp cheekbones and a slender frame, she did nothing to accentuate her looks. She never wore makeup. Her clothes were plain and ill-fitting. The moment a boy seemed interested in her, she panicked. If her stammering and spitting didn’t scare him off, she would scurry away to the ladies’ room, or somewhere else he wouldn’t follow.
   Christine often tried in vain to get her to come out and meet people. Tonight, she wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
   “I have all these equations to finish,” Manuela said.
   “You expect me to believe you didn’t do it already? You don’t put anything off,” Christine laughed.
   “I wanted to check it one last time,” Manuela said, weakly.
   “Well, start now. Becca’s coming at nine. You’ve got twenty minutes,” Christine turned from Manuela as if the matter was settled. Manuela scowled. If she had to go, she definitely preferred to go without Becca, whom she found insufferable.
   At nine o’clock, Becca called the intercom. Manuela and Christine met her outside as she finished her cigarette. As usual, Becca and Christine started bickering instantly. When Christine asked if she could bum a smoke, Becca snapped that she should buy her own. Christine called her petty. Becca called her cheap. After Christine finally dropped it with a petulant, “never mind,” Becca turned irately to Manuela.
   “Do you even know what this is for?” Becca asked, in the same patronizing tone she always used with Manuela.
   “Yeah, of course,” Christine said, shooting Manuela a smile. Christine was accustomed to answering for her.
   “What is that?” Becca gasped, gazing at the translucent bag Manuela had carried down.
   “The candles,” Christine said.
   “I see that. Why are they blue?” Becca asked.
   “That’s all I found at CVS,” Christine groaned.
   “And no other stores were open in Manhattan, except the CVS on your corner?” Becca scoffed.
   “Why does it matter?” Christine threw up her hands in frustration. She began walking down Broadway. Ever the loyal shadow, Manuela followed her.
   “It matters because I don’t want to look like an idiot,” Becca called out. After taking a last drag from her cigarette, she stomped on the butt and caught up to them.
   “This isn’t for me, anyway,” Becca huffed.
   Manuela found the remark odd. Becca was more into feminism than Christine was. Becca didn’t even shave her legs, refusing to conform to “patriarchal standards of beauty.” Christine would joke about it to Manuela behind her back. Their secret nickname for her was “Chew-Becca.”
   In Washington Square Park, a large crowd of mostly women encircled the fountain. A podium was set up below the arch. Candles shone in darkness, illuminating somber faces. Manuela read the signs, “Stop the violence,” “No means no,” “Believe the victim.” She realized they were all about rape.
Manuela had never told anyone about her abuse by Hector, her mother’s ex-boyfriend. As a child of six and seven, she didn’t understand that he was hurting her, that the acts he forced her to perform would damage her forever. A part of her enjoyed the attention he gave her. Her father had moved back to Puerto Rico when she was a toddler. Her mother seemed constantly harried, working two or more jobs to make rent.
   After the abuse started, her thoughts turned self-loathing. She told herself she was crazy, ugly and stupid. She shied away from her friends, believing they couldn’t possibly like her. She felt sad all the time, overcome with a sense of loss she couldn’t explain.
   Every day in the schoolyard, she sat by herself with her books, getting a head start on her homework. She seemed so solemn that adults and children alike joked that she would grow up to be a nun. Only Manuela remembered a time when she was different, when she was capable of joy, and didn’t feel utterly alone in the world.
   Manuela couldn’t stand being here. She felt exposed, somehow, as if those around her could see exactly who she was: poor, Spanish, sexually abused trash.
   A woman came to the podium. Manuela realized it was Kiarah, her TA in Statistics. Her voice trembling, she recounted an incident during high school. She had gone with friends to a house party. At one point, she found herself alone in a bedroom with a male classmate. He shoved her onto the bed. When he tried to hold her down, she squirmed free and ran out. He was popular, so she was afraid to tell anyone. She thought no one would believe her.
   “We believe you,” a woman in the front declared.
   Kiarah teared up, thanking the crowd for their support. Manuela felt only jealousy. Kiarah got away: Manuela hadn’t been so lucky.
   Another woman came to the podium. She looked to be in her forties. She introduced herself as Valerie, a sociology professor at NYU. She was assaulted at a party during graduate school. Unlike Kiarah, she did not get away. She said it broke her soul. She was in therapy for years and was finally okay now. She said it took her a decade to get back to being herself.
   Manuela thought, at least Valerie had a “self” to get back to. Manuela was a child when her soul was broken. She never got to become a whole person. She had no hope of ever being “okay.”
   When Christine muttered, “Be right back,” Manuela decided to slip away and return to the dorm. She could tell Christine that she felt too sad, which was true. She felt certain that none of the stories here were as sad as hers, and that filled her with despair. She was standing on her toes, trying to spot the nearest exit, when she heard Christine’s voice on the mic.
   “I was eleven years old when my innocence was taken from me.”
   Manuela blew out her candle and set it down on the ground. She slipped through the crowd, up to the front. Speaking calmly, her face impassive, Christine recounted her own sexual assault.
   Christine was walking home alone from school. Suddenly, she felt someone grab her hair. Before she could scream, a hand covered her mouth. She found herself being dragged by a tall, bulky man into a side street. During the act, she felt nothing. It seemed to be happening to someone else. She felt worse when it was over. He left her there, ruined and discarded. She wanted to die. She had no idea how long she lay on the filthy pavement.
   Eventually, she staggered home, where her grandmother was watching TV. Seeing her soiled clothes and dazed expression, her grandmother knew immediately something was wrong. Humiliated, Christine evaded her questions. It took hours for her grandmother to pry the truth from her. The police were called, a report was filed, but her assailant was never found. To this day, Christine couldn’t bear having her hair longer than a few inches.
   Christine thanked her girlfriend, Becca, for her support. Manuela followed her eyes to Becca. Becca’s face reddened. She looked mortified, as if Christine had revealed something shameful. Or, perhaps she was embarrassed about the blue candle she was holding.
   “She doesn’t love you,” Manuela thought.
   Unlike with the other speakers, the crowd reacted with silence. Manuela guessed that they didn’t know how to interpret her lack of emotion. It mystified them, but not Manuela. Manuela carried around a sorrow so heavy, she knew it would crush her if she let herself feel it.
   “Thanks for letting me speak,” Christine said. She hopped off the platform. She didn’t see Manuela, who was about ten feet away. Christine headed towards Becca.
   “Christine!” Manuela called. Christine turned to her. Manuela jostled her way to her. Once they stood, face to face, Manuela gaped at her. She had so much to say, but couldn’t get the words out. She wanted to comfort her. She wanted to thank her. Manuela felt less alone now. She felt less worthless, because Christine was hurt in the same way she was, and Christine was anything but worthless.
   At once, Christine threw her arms around her. Manuela felt her chest heaving up and down. She heard her soft sobs. She felt her wet tears on her neck. Instinctively, Manuela stroked Christine’s back.
   “It happened to me too,” Manuela whispered. Just saying it aloud felt like a release. It was no longer a shameful secret. Christine didn’t respond verbally, but she squeezed Manuela tighter.
   “Want to go back?” Manuela asked. Pulling away, Christine nodded. She sniffed and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Holding hands, they pushed their way to the exit. After a block, Christine apologized for crying.
   “Don’t be crazy,” Manuela said.
   “Can’t help it,” Christine said.
   “Me neither,” Manuela said. Christine put her arm around her.
   As they approached the dorm, Christine abruptly stopped. She stepped back from Manuela. She gave Manuela a quizzical look, then blushed, seeming abashed.
   “I should go back for Becca,” Christine pronounced.
   “I hate her,” Manuela muttered. Christine smirked, amused by Manuela’s candor.
   “She’s not so bad,” Christine said. Manuela perked her brow dubiously.
   “I can’t break up with her yet. I’ve got a crush on her roommate, and I think she’s coming around to me,” Christine admitted. Manuela giggled. Christine hugged her again, letting out a soft sigh, then ambled back to Becca.
   Manuela returned to the dorm feeling exhilarated. For the first time ever, she envisioned a bright future for herself. She would overcome the evil that was done to her. She would be strong, like Christine. She knew Christine would help her. She wondered if, one day, she might love a man as much as she loved her.


***


   Manuela lingered on the sidewalk adjacent to Washington Square Park. A man with a bullhorn stood on a podium below the arch, exactly where Christine had once stood. The protesters cheered his words. His conviction moved her. It took courage, like Christine had, to speak out against evil. She felt compelled to join the cause.
   Yet, the crowd was packed so closely together. It made her squeamish even to watch them, facemasks or not. Tim had regular contact with people in fragile health. If she gave him the coronavirus, it could kill someone.
   She was a grown woman, with responsibilities. She couldn’t be reckless. Before the speech ended, she turned and headed back up Broadway, to Gramercy Market. She still needed groceries. Even if the world was in upheaval, chores had to get done.
   With the protest stirring memories of Christine, she wondered how she was doing. She Googled her periodically. Christine was a director. Last year, she had caught one of her films on Netflix, a poignant coming out story set in LA’s Koreatown.
   After joining the back of the line for Gramercy Market, she Googled Christine’s name. She found a recent article stating her latest film had been nominated for a GLAAD award. That made her smile. On a whim, she found Christine on Facebook and sent her a friend request. Her request was accepted before she made it inside.
   She put away her phone while she shopped, then took it out as she waited on the checkout line. She scrolled through the photos on Christine’s Facebook page. Christine was still attractive. Her hair remained short, but its color went from green to orange to violet. Her companions, too, seemed to change frequently. In March, she had her arm around a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-looking woman. In January, she dined at a French bistro with a curvy Latina. In December of last year, she kissed a ginger-haired waif in a selfie.
   Her most recent post was from yesterday. Wearing her face mask, she held a camcorder on her shoulder. The caption read, “Shooting resumes today. Fingers crossed Ms. ‘Rona keeps her distance.”
   She considered posting a comment, but felt self-conscious. The cashier waved her over. She put away her phone. Still, she promised herself that she would write to her later, when she could take the time to put thought into it.
   “You were gone long,” Jasmine noted as Manuela was in the kitchen, putting away the groceries. She didn’t pry for an explanation, clearly assuming it was something mundane. Manuela was just glad not to have to explain her detour to the protest.
   Jasmine grabbed a banana from the grocery bag and devoured it. After dropping the peel into the trash bin, she searched through the bags for another snack, under the guise of helping.
   “Mom!” Jasmine screamed.
   “What happened?” Manuela darted to Jasmine. Her first thought was that Jasmine had somehow cut herself. Instead of a bloody finger, however, Jasmine held up the bag of Auntie Sally’s white rice.
   “Is it bad?” Manuela asked, imagining Jasmine had opened it to find it crawling with maggots.
   “Yeah, I’d say. It’s bad. It’s horrible. It’s problematic. Don’t you keep up on anything?” Jasmine snapped.
   “I try,” Manuela said, befuddled. She had no idea what Jasmine was referring to, or how a bag of rice could possibly be “problematic.”
   “Don’t you see this?” Jasmine held the bag up to Manuela’s face.
   “Um, Auntie Sally?” Manuela said. Auntie Sally was a heavyset, African American woman in a headwrap smiling pleasantly. Her illustrated face was printed in the bag’s upper righthand corner.
   “She’s a racist caricature, the ‘loyal mammie,’ all too delighted to serve. A hundred years ago, a greedy company paid her a pittance to exploit her likeness. There’s a boycott happening, right now, because they’re refusing to remove her image, even after the real Auntie Sally’s relatives demanded it,” Jasmine said, her voice indignant.
   “Oh,” Manuela said. Now it made sense why it was half off. Products at Gramercy Market were never on sale.
   “‘Oh’, that’s all you have to say?” Jasmine scoffed.
   “You don’t have to eat it. I’ll throw it away,” Manuela said, trying to be conciliatory. It wasn’t important to her, but she could see it was very important to Jasmine.
   “That’s not the point. I bet you don’t even think there’s anything wrong with it, do you?” Jasmine slammed the bag down onto the counter.
   “Hold on, I’m a different generation than you are. You have to be more understanding,” Manuela pled. Auntie Sally was racist; it seemed obvious now, but not before. She hadn’t been taught to think that way.
   “The planet is dying. The president is a madman. Innocent people are being killed because of their skin color. The exploitation of animals caused a virus that shut down society. Oh, I think we’ve overlooked your sins for too long.” Jasmine jabbed her finger at Manuela accusingly. While Manuela couldn’t argue with any of her points, her words still seemed unfair. No one had intended the world to go so wrong.
   “Stop it!” Manuela shouted.
   “Does the truth hurt too much?” Jasmine sneered. She turned away, but Manuela couldn’t leave it at that. She needed to teach Jasmine compassion. Jasmine had to see that people deserved forgiveness.
   “What about your father, Pablo?” Manuela said. Jasmine turned around.
   “What about him?” Jasmine said.
   “You get along with him well. You even spent last summer with him at Stanford,” Manuela said.
   “So?” Jasmine crossed her arms.
   “I was twenty years old when we got together. I was his student. He was forty, twice my age. I’d never even had a boyfriend. I thought he would marry me. I was just a plaything to him. He broke up with me when I insisted on having you. My friend, Christine, tried to tell me what kind of man he was…” Manuela trailed off, remembering her awful screaming matches with Christine. Christine would call him, “the perv.” She would say some sick part of Manuela needed to be dominated. Manuela couldn’t understand why Christine wasn’t happy for her.
   “Christine, your lesbian friend?” Jasmine asked, smirking. Manuela nodded. She supposed she must have mentioned her before.
   “Every time you talk about college, you bring her up. You sound in love with her,” Jasmine noted. Manuela glanced down, blushing. She hadn’t realized she came off that way.
   “You were probably pansexual, but didn’t know it. That’s why you chose a man who mistreated you, because you weren’t comfortable with yourself. I bet she loved you too, but people were less open-minded back then, so you couldn’t be together,” Jasmine said. Her tone was gentle and instructive, as if she were speaking to a child.
   “That’s not true. We were just friends,” Manuela laughed. She found the idea of her and Christine being a couple amusing.
   If she and Christine were lovers, life might have been easier. She wouldn’t have gotten pregnant so young. She wouldn’t have dropped out before her last semester, earning her final credits at Jersey City College. She and Christine might have lasted forever; their bond felt so profound. Or, their romance could have been brief and tumultuous. Christine was fickle; Manuela was so immature.
   “Uh huh, sure.” Jasmine patted her shoulder pityingly. “But you’re right. It’s wrong to blame you. You can’t help being ignorant. We know so much more about everything now.”
   Manuela held her tongue. She felt guilty for bringing up Pablo, which she knew crossed a line, even if Jasmine hardly seemed devastated.
   “And yeah, I know Dad was an asshole. He told me, himself, he was horrible to you. That’s why we have to purge all the toxic masculinity from our culture, so boys won’t grow up to be like him. Even if I love him, I hate him for what he did to you,” Jasmine said. Jasmine’s brow furrowed in confusion. Manuela could tell, it was hard for her to reconcile Pablo’s past actions with the man she knew now. She was used to seeing people lose everything over errant Facebook posts, yet had to overlook that her own father had abandoned her pregnant mother.
   “You should love him,” Manuela said, not wanting to see Jasmine in turmoil. Jasmine smiled, happy not to dwell on it.
   “Hey, do you think I can take this?” Jasmine glanced down at the Auntie Sally’s rice.
   “You want to give it to Ethan to destroy on Instagram?” Manuela guessed. Jasmine nodded.
   “Just the bag. You can cook the rice, if you want. I won’t eat any, but it’s a shame to waste it. I know you didn’t know,” Jasmine said. Manuela grabbed an empty Tupperware container from the cupboard, poured the rice in and handed the bag to Jasmine.
   “Thanks.” Jasmine ran off with it gleefully.
   As Manuela finished putting away the groceries, Aidan slunk into the kitchen. Having overheard the argument, he had a perturbed expression.
“Everything’s okay, Cariño,” she said.
“Okay,” he mumbled. “Can I watch Clarissa Powers?” he asked, his concern swiftly allayed. Clarissa Powers was a cartoon on Netflix about a superpowered schoolgirl. After putting on an episode, she settled beside him on the couch. She pulled out her phone. She had a Facebook notification.
Christine commented on one of her posts: “You haven’t changed.” It was a photo of her and Tim, celebrating their anniversary last month. They posed with the prime rib she had cooked and the bottle of Bordeaux he had picked up. Manuela was flattered by the comment: it was true, she had stayed slim. The dim lighting hid her frown lines and crow’s feet.
Now seemed a good time to write Christine. She could say she had never stopped thinking of her. She could tell her about Jasmine, ask her what she thought of the “wokesters,” and the controversy with Dorothy Bennett.
She thought again about what Jasmine said, that she and Christine were in love with each other. She dismissed it as ridiculous. If she were “pansexual,” she would have no problem admitting it. Of course, she would have to Google what it meant first, and how it differed from “bisexuality,” which had apparently fallen out of fashion.
She scrolled through her Facebook friends, looking for Christine, to send her a private message. But Christine was gone. She located Christine’s profile page again. The “Add Friend” option was there. She nearly pressed it, but stopped herself. Friends didn’t disappear for no reason. Christine must have “unfriended” her.
Tears stung her eyes. Christine had deleted her from her life, erased her existence. Manuela had been cancelled. She stood up and walked to her bedroom to be alone. After shutting the door, she gazed into the mirror above her dresser, wondering what Christine had been offended by.
The world had disregarded her. Her views were deemed outdated. Time and again, she was told she was a fool. But she never expected to be rejected by Christine.
Christine had loved her once. She had helped her overcome her crippling shyness. Without their friendship, she wouldn’t have her husband or her children. Only as she thought of Tim, and the photo Christine had commented on, did it occur to her what Christine meant, “You haven’t changed.”
Jasmine was right: Manuela had been seeing everything wrong her whole life, at least with regards to Christine. Their love went beyond friendship. And yet, it wasn’t as simple as Jasmine made it sound. Relationships weren’t like mathematical concepts, clear-cut, easily defined. Manuela could have toyed with Christine, and also been guileless. Manuela could refuse to acknowledge her feelings for her, yet know they were there. Manuela could be furious with her now, and still forgive her for shunning her.
Of course, she had to forgive Christine. Christine taught her how to trust. She was her first love, really. She walked over to the bookcase and scanned the titles. All four Julie 17 novels were together. The covers were frayed, the pages yellowed. They had traveled with her for twenty years, to each one of her homes.
She smiled softly, remembering how she and Christine had poured over each detail. They saw the final film in the series together, at a theater in Union Square. During the epic battle between Julie 17 and the Imperial Army, Christine took her hand and squeezed it.
“This is it,” Christine whispered. It was a rapturous moment for them, the culmination of a years-long journey.
Suddenly struck with fear, she took out all four Julie 17 books and placed them on the dresser. She found four medical books that were about the same size. She removed the jackets and slipped them over the Julie 17 books. No matter how perspectives changed, or how awful Dorothy Bennett proved to be, they meant too much to her to let Jasmine ruin them.
“Cancel me all you want, I won’t give you up,” she thought, placing the books back on the shelf. Life was full of variables. But every equation needed a constant, and so did she. These books were entwined with memories of Christine, and she would cherish them forever.
 

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